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Top 10 Running Trails in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. is a beautiful place to run, with wide sidewalks, mild hills, and excellent sights and local points of interest. If you’re in the area, check out these top 10 favorite spots to hit the pavement and get those miles.

1. The National Mall

View of the National Mall in DC.

The National Mall is one of the most iconic running routes in Washington, D.C. This 4-mile loop stretches between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, offering views of many of the most touristy attractions in the area. Enjoy close-up sights of the World War II Memorial, the National Gallery of Art, the Washington Monument, and the Reflecting Pool, and check out all 34 Smithsonian Museums. There’s plenty of shade along the sidewalk lining the Reflecting Pool, and the extra wide dirt paths near the Washington Monument allow ample space for you and all the other joggers and visitors that traverse this route daily.

Tips: If you plan to run this route, it’s best to get out early before the rest of the city is awake. Otherwise, you can run here anytime and enjoy the sightseeing if you don’t mind the crowds.

2. C&O Canal Towpath

Ducks walking on path in C&O Canal Towpath.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal or C&O Canal Towpath offers 184 glorious miles of running route between Georgetown and Central Pennsylvania. Although this is much more than any runner probably needs, it provides plenty of space for you to explore while running. The trail starts in Georgetown, and most runners in the area stay within the D.C. borders, enjoying the soft dirt surface and cool shade the towpath provides. As you run, enjoy the views of some of the most majestic mansions along the Potomac and local wildlife, including beavers, turtles, blue herons, and fish.

Tips: The C&O Towpath’s terrain is very flat, but even if you run it daily, it’s nearly impossible to get sick of the stunning scenery and miles of trail this route provides.

3. Embassy Row

View of townhouses on Embassy Row in D.C.

The Embassy Row is another popular D.C. route that spans about 2 miles of Massachusetts Avenue between Dupont Circle and the Washington Cathedral. Along this route, you’ll run past diplomatic missions for many countries, the U.S. Naval Observatory, the Vice President’s residence, and other local landmarks. Between Rock Creek Park and Wisconsin Avenue, you’ll also enjoy a steady uphill challenge that will put your endurance to the test.

Tips: To add a few more miles to your run, continue down Massachusetts Avenue or head to the nearby Rock Creek Park trails.

4. Rock Creek Park

Runner on Rock Creek Park in the morning.

Rock Creek Park is home to more than 2,000 acres of trails and beautiful natural scenery for a stunning run through a local recreation area. A natural oasis in the heart of the city, Rock Creek Park cuts across the Northwest quadrant, from the northern tip of D.C. to the Kennedy Center, offering miles of distinct trails for runners, joggers, and walkers. The Rock Creek Trail is the premiere running path in the park, but many others provide excellent scenery and terrain, including Beach Drive (4.6 miles), Western Ridge Trail (5 miles), and Valley Trail (5.6 miles).

Tips: On holidays and weekends, Beach Drive is completely closed off to cars, so you can enjoy a nice run free from vehicle traffic in the D.C. area.

5. East Potomac Park

East Potomac Park full of people.

East Potomac Park offers an excellent 4.4-mile loop on a manmade island in the Potomac River. The 327-acre park is next to the Jefferson Memorial, and it’s home to a golf course, but you can run along the sidewalk that spans the outer edge of the course. Although the road in the park is open to cars, you can also run along the side of it if you feel comfortable. Many runners and cyclists make their way through East Potomac Park this way. While you run, enjoy amazing views of iconic D.C. landmarks and the cool breeze coming off the water.

Tips: If you like a run with a view, this park is for you! The park grounds are beautifully landscaped, featuring stunning Japanese cherry blossoms and other flowering trees. You’ll also have a great view of the D.C. and Arlington skylines and the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers.

6. Anacostia Park

Aerial view of Anacostia Park.

About 1.5 miles south of the Capitol on the southeast side of D.C., Anacostia Park provides a continuous 20-mile trail on both sides of the Anacostia River. Several bridges along the route make it easy to run loops at the park, and the green scenery on the water is a nice break from the city. The Anacostia Park Riverwalk Trail is 3.5 miles, offering an excellent spot for a quick jog. It even crosses over the bridges into downtown D.C. so you can extend your run to the Navy Yard and Capitol Hill neighborhoods.

Tips: Every Sunday at 9 a.m., Anacostia Park hosts a free, community 5K event open to runners of all levels.

7. National Arboretum

A couple sitting on a bench in the National Arboretum.

If you prefer to run in an area of D.C. with fewer tourists, this is it! The National Arboretum is home to 451 acres of green space, flowering plants, and lush trees, all without the usual swarms of tourists you’ll run into elsewhere in D.C. There are several different gardens to explore while you run and the winding roadways through the Arboretum provide endless route options for runners who enjoy variety. As you run here, watch closely for bald eagles and slow down for a walking cooldown while you take note of all the fascinating different plant species. 

Tips: The National Arboretum is only open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., so if you’re working during those hours, you might be limited to only running here on the weekends and your days off.

8. Theodore Roosevelt Island

Bridge at Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Theodore Roosevelt Island is a memorial park honoring the 26th president of the United States. It’s only accessible via a footbridge, so you won’t find any cars or traffic here. Bikes aren’t allowed on the island either. The landscape is well-designed, making it feel like an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, and the flat dirt trails invite you to explore the area’s natural landscape. The park is open year-round from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the loop trail around the park is about 1.5 miles with great views of the city skyline.

Tips: The island also hosts a free weekly Parkrun on Saturdays at 9 a.m. if you want to run with a group.

9. Smithsonian National Zoological Park

View of the entrance of The National Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute may not sound like an ideal place to run, but it’s one of the best spots in D.C. for a jog. It’s free to enter, and the walkways span 2.5 miles for a scenic run through a fantastic collection of animal displays, home to 2,700 animals. Of course, while the zoo is popular among local runners, it’s also a top spot for tourists. So if you can’t make it out by 8 a.m. for a weekday run, your best bet is to get out early and avoid the crowds. The zoo has water fountains and refill stations throughout the property.

Tips: Although the zoo is free to enter, all guests must have an entry pass. You can reserve one online.

10. Mount Vernon Trail

Path at the Mount Vernon Trail.

One of the D.C. metro area’s most popular trails, the Mount Vernon Trail features 18 miles of running path that passes through a diverse selection of natural landscapes, including wetlands, wooded parks, historic neighborhoods, and more. The route follows the Potomac River, using the historic Arlington Bridge to cross from D.C. to Virginia. Along the way, you’ll see several points of interest, like George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon and Arlington National Cemetery. The trail is mostly paved, but a few sections are boardwalk, and several metro stations near the route make it very easily accessible.

Tips: If you want to extend your run, the Mount Vernon Trail also connects with several regional trails, including the Potomac Heritage Trail and Rock Creek Trail. 

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Sources:

  1. https://www.nps.gov/nama/planyourvisit/index.htm 
  2. https://www.canaltrust.org/plan/co-canal-towpath/ 
  3. https://www.embassy.org/embassy_row/
  4. https://greatruns.com/washington-dc-embassy-row-2/ 
  5. https://www.nps.gov/rocr/index.htm 
  6. https://www.tclf.org/landscapes/east-potomac-park
  7. https://www.nps.gov/anac/planyourvisit/anacostia-riverwalk-trail.htm
  8. https://usna.usda.gov/about/who-we-are-about-the-arboretum/ 
  9. https://www.nps.gov/this/index.htm
  10. https://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/a20848716/where-to-run-theodore-roosevelt-island/
  11. https://nationalzoo.si.edu 
  12.  https://www.nps.gov/gwmp/planyourvisit/upload/Mt-Vernon-Trail-map-508-2021.pdf
  13. https://www.traillink.com/trail/mount-vernon-trail/ 

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